When We Made… OlliOlli World: How abandoning crunch empowered Roll7 to create its best game yet

They say if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Well, to quote the inimitable Brian David Gilbert, that’s bullshit. I love what I do, and let me tell you something – I’ve worked some days.

The problems of crunch and burnout are certainly not unique to the games industry – it’s one that lies at the heart of any creative career, any activity that attracts passionate, driven people pursuing the things they love.

When we talk about crunch, we often focus on the corporate-mandated side of it. Disconnected suits at large studios demanding that their underlings burn up every last drop of energy in order to meet impossible deadlines. This, unquestionably, does exist. Game development is a great many things – an artistic endeavour, the result of talented and like-minded people coming together to create important work that they care about. But it’s also a business, and like any business in our society, it can often thrive on the exploitation of its workers.

But there’s more to it than just that. The decision to crunch isn’t always a cynical one, or even sometimes a conscious one. People, on the whole, are in the games industry because they want to be here. The latest Ukie Diversity Census (see p32) found that 85 per cent of respondents are proud to work in the UK games industry. People come here because they have a passion for games – be that developing them, working in PR, in journalism, whatever. They want to throw themselves into the things they love.

The problem is when you do that without restraint, when you give too much of yourself to your work, you won’t realise the damage that you’re doing to your physical and mental health until it’s too late. Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. When you let your passions burn for too long, eventually the fire will go out. And when all you’re left with is ash and smoke, you’ll wonder what it was that you loved in the first place.

OlliOlli World is not a game about crunch. Roll7’s colourful and innovative return to the skateboarding genre does not have lengthy debates on the intrinsic relationship between creativity and burnout. But it is a remarkable success story, one born from a studio coming to terms with its own relationship with crunch, taking the time to recover, and coming back to find that there’s a better way.

LASER FATIGUE

Simon Bennett,
co founder of Roll7

The game is Roll7’s first full release in four years – and seven years since the last game in the series, OlliOlli2: Welcome to Olliwood. But the best way to understand OlliOlli World lies outside of its franchise. The story of OlliOlli World’s development begins with Roll7’s previous game, their 2018 title Laser League.

“We had an interesting period after finishing Laser League,” says Roll7 Tom Hegarty. “We were really pleased with how the game turned out, but the process to get there was fraught. You know, we openly admit it: We were crunching. We thought that was part of what you had to do.

“We got to the end of that process and had to ask ourselves some hard questions – because we should have enjoyed that process, we’re making video games. “Yes, there’s parts of developing a game that are difficult, but ultimately there should be some fun along the way.”

And so with Laser League shipped, Roll7’s three co-founders (Simon Bennett, Thomas Hegarty and John Ribbins) needed not only time to recover, but to remember why exactly they were developing games in the first place. The team announced that Roll7 would be taking a break from game development, and the three planned a little getaway for themselves so that they could discuss the future of the studio.

CONFESSIONAL

What they ended up booking was, in an oddly appropriate move, an Airbnb in a refurbished church. Here the three sat down and hammered out what the future of Roll7 should look like.

“We did a lot of soul searching about what we wanted personally, and what we wanted for the business,” says Hegarty. “That was the beginning of the next phase of Roll7. One of the top things was that there couldn’t be any crunch anymore. There has to be a different way to do it. Let’s work in a normal way with normal hours, and let’s appreciate that we have our own lives outside of this, and everyone who works for us also has their own personal interests. That was a crucial part for moving forward, that set the tone.”

Of course, ‘no crunch’ is a lot more than just a useful PR line. If any workplace truly wants to commit to a no-crunch environment, it first needs to rethink the way it approaches its work.

“We also looked at a lot of our working practices,” says Hegarty. “In terms of how we managed, and the trust we put in people – or the lack of trust. It’s not that we didn’t think people could do it, but we were micromanaging. We thought that was the way to make a game.

“So there was a lot of reflection, and we turned to a model of: Let’s just bring in people who are good at what they do, and then trust them and see what they do. Of course, it’s important to give a broad idea of what we want, and set clear boundaries, but it was a complete 180 in the way we worked.”

With this healthy new direction set, Roll7 would later begin work on OlliOlli World – a return to the franchise that first put them on the map. Which, given the circumstances, naturally resulted in a few mixed feelings.

“Honestly at the end of Laser League, there were genuine questions as to whether we actually wanted to make a game again,” says Simon Bennett. “There was trepidation going into that process. Why are we doing this to ourselves, and to our families? Can we look each other in the eye and actually say that this is a good idea?

“And then, obviously, we got excited. Because the prototype was exciting, and there were all sorts of exciting things going on. But we were excited between the hours of nine and a half five in the evening. We had to resist the temptation – I would normally call John [Ribbins] at 9 or 10 o’clock at night, and we’d discuss new features or things that were happening.

“Those conversations are now few and far between. We had to stop each other from letting those exciting conversations just become normal. Because then later in development, you’re having those conversations, but they’re more arguments that are happening offline. And the other directors and the team aren’t aware of the decisions that are made. So then things just start falling apart, because it’s not happening in that structured way.

“What we did is install a lot of structure and self-editing. Holding stuff back for appropriate times for conversations is not something that we’d done before. We’d spend hours in the pub discussing ideas for things, and there’d never be any clear outcomes. Everyone would have a very different idea about what all of those rambled conversations over eight pints actually meant. And then you’d come back in, and one person would go off and do one thing, and the other person would go do another. They’d say ‘oh, you meant the thing from before we got the shots in! Oh, no. I want to do the other thing that we discussed…’ I mean, it was just a crazy, crazy situation. The way that we work now is far more focused, it’s far more efficient. What we were doing was just crazy.”

I didn’t know how to fit it in the feature itself, but it’s very important to me that you know that Danny Trejo is in this game

STRUCTURED PASSION

Structure is really the important thing here. In creative industries, crunch is often unwittingly self-imposed. When people love their work, they’ll happily throw themselves into it. But as with any relationship, without clear boundaries and structure, that love will turn toxic over time. Passion is a great motivator, but passion will always be a finite resource. While the team were excited by OlliOlli World from the get-go, they were careful to set strict boundaries in place.

“At the beginning of the project, you’re really excited because it’s new,” says Hegarty. “We have to tell people: You need to be just as excited about the game in three years’ time as you are now. Because that’s when we’ll be putting all the final touches together, making all those final calls and trying to keep the energy going.

“There was an interesting conversation I had with someone who joined us from another company, where crunch was rife. We’d gone through the big ‘no crunch’ talk and all the methods we employ, and he goes ‘yeah, but I presume you ARE going to crunch it.’

“And like, no! That’s the behaviour and the mindset we need to challenge. If you think you’re going to crunch, then you probably will. But if you think you’re not going to do it, you’re going to start your day with a different mindset. If you have to finish at half 5, then you have to adjust your day. Does this meeting need to be an hour? Can it be half an hour? You make those kinds of decisions.”

Even once the passion runs dry, there seems to be an almost fatalistic acceptance of burnout in creative industries. Video games are hard to make – and therefore surely they must require some level of suffering in order
to exist.

It’s an easy trap to fall into. The image of the tortured artist is a classic for a reason – but it’s one that hides the fact that there are often better, less painful ways of doing things.

“I see this conversation a lot,” says Hegarty. “You see people saying ‘games are hard to make,’ or ‘I’m surprised they get made at all!’ And if you’d asked me a few years ago I’d probably have said ‘yeah, they’re really hard!’

“I’m not sat here saying that it’s easy – and I’m not a developer or an animator, so I’m a step removed from it slightly. But you know, we’re not doing brain surgery, or rocket science here. I think we need to move away from the idea that it’s just really hard. It can be difficult, but it’s also really creative. You can put those structures in place.

“I think smaller companies need to look at what the bigger companies have been doing for years, because they’re doing really difficult and creative stuff. The structures that you can bring in don’t impede your creativity, but actually boost it. A lot of people see those structures and more formal ideas as something that can potentially ruin your creative process. But you need those in place to make sure that you can create something remarkable.”

“I think that’s a really interesting point there,” says Bennett. “We always thought that making games involved late night pizzas. We were excited by that when we started out in our shabby office in Deptford, making the first OlliOlli. I’d read all the stories about EA, the spouses of employees complaining about how late they work. That’s how they made games, and we’re just a few people in Deptford with no money and on a wing and a prayer. If we’re going to make a game that can compete with those guys, we’re going to need to do this.

“It literally took us until 2018 to challenge that philosophy. And it has to come from the directors of the studio. It can’t be something that sort of permeates through the lower echelons. It has to be absolutely core to the beliefs and the values of the studio in order for it to work, the directors have to live and own that too.

“It’s challenging the de facto way of working. Let’s face it, unlike the film industry, this industry doesn’t have a very standard way of working. You know, say you make a film. You make the film, it comes out and you sell it. Games can run three or four years over their original schedule, and everyone’s like ‘yeah, that’s pretty standard.’ Everyone nods along. How on earth is that allowed to happen in this day and age?

“Yes, video games are inherently more complex, there are a lot more moving parts. But the only way that you’re going to get to a position where we can make games in the way that we’ve made OlliOlli World, where we were confident that we’d be able to ship on a certain date, is by challenging all of those assumptions around how you make them in the first place. By challenging that philosophical part of this, which is how you align passion with a nine to five work/life balance.

“It would be nice to know that in 20 years time, there’s a more formalised way of making games that allows people to not kill themselves, and that it’s not seen as a badge of honour. Like, I saw it as a badge of honour! I thought we were doing the right thing. I remember eating pizza late at night, being really excited about this way of working. It seems absolutely insane to me at the moment, but I know that there’ll be people out there who are doing it and thinking, ‘this is how it’s meant to be done.’

“I’d like to say to them, having been them a decade ago: if you think that that’s how you have to make games, then please challenge that assumption. Because the people around you, who love you, might not hang around as a result of you pursuing this passion. Your mental health might not come around.”

The team were quickly excited by the new possibilities available in OlliOlli World

A BETTER WAY

While protecting the mental health of your team is, of course, the most important reason to refuse to crunch, there’s still more to it. It seems ludicrous to need to say this, but given that this is the games industry I will anyway: people do not do their best work when they’re tired. The team credits much of OlliOlli World’s success to this healthy and structured approach
to development.

“We do not crunch,” says Bennett. “We absolutely feel like the reason that we’ve managed to ship OlliOlli World on seven platforms on the day that we said that we would, is fundamentally down to the philosophy that has driven this new iteration of the studio. And it will continue to drive it, we will continue to improve on it.

“On Laser League, it wasn’t mandated crunch. We asked the team specifically: ‘can you do an extra 20 per cent toward beta?’ Some people opted out, and we were fine with that. Some people just cracked on and did it. And we had to refactor most of that work, because it was littered with problems and issues.

“That’s not because the team wasn’t putting their all into it – it’s because they were working more than they should have worked. We were all working more than we should have, and we made mistakes. Because we weren’t 100 per cent focused. The human brain can only do so much in a day, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying for a LinkedIn profile. That stuff’s all bollocks, and the sooner people actually realise that, the better.”

The development of OlliOlli World couldn’t have been more different than that of Laser League’s. Talking to Bennett and Hegarty, it’s obvious that they have more than rediscovered their passion for game development – and are clearly focused on ensuring that they manage that passion in healthy and productive ways.

“It may sound cheesy, but [OlliOlli World’s development] was driven by a lot of positivity,” says Hegarty. “We were really excited.”

“The ambition for OlliOlli World was always bigger and better,” says Bennett. “During development there was a concern that we were just dressing this game up to be OlliOlli with a bit of story, and we’ve added grabs and a nice art style, and that’s it – it’s just another OlliOlli game.

“But when we started doing branching paths, right to left skating, and playing around with all the split routes, all those sorts of things… That’s when I turned around to the team and said ‘this is what makes this OlliOlli World. Forget that it’s a skating game, this is pushing the boundaries of what a platformer can be. This is really innovative, this is an exciting thing, and we need to explore all the different avenues that this gives us, not only for level design but for art too.’

“I think that the design and the art team have done a remarkable job of coming up with levels that are pushing the boundaries of where Sonic ever went. That was, for me, the point in development where any worries about if what we were doing was actually going to be remarkable was quashed. From there on, it was just excitement. We were making this big, bright, candy-coated video game in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. It was a huge juxtaposition, and just a super positive experience, through and through.

“This was a charmed project, and a lot of that comes down to how amazing the team working on it were. It also comes down to us being super, super diligent on scope, and ensuring that what we were building was achievable in the timeframe. It’s the first properly charmed project we’ve had as a studio, and I want a bunch more.

OlliOlli World is the best game that we’ve ever shipped. It’s something that we’re immensely proud of, and it could have only been built under these circumstances.”

All of this is excellent news for both Roll7 employees and its fans, of course. Though we have some bad news for any Airbnb hosts out there…

“I don’t feel like we need to go and sit in a church again,” says Bennett. “We just shipped a game, and we’re all still alive and still excited about making games. We have more in the pipeline, there’s lots of very exciting things going on in the prototype land. It’s fun.”

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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